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Strangers In A Strange Land, Why Jews Stand With Black Lives

It has been a heart-wrenching few weeks in our nation, in the aftermath of the brutal lynching of George Floyd.

His crime—allegedly spending a $20 counterfeit bill at a convenience store.  It was Memorial Day, and the media was transfixed on reporting about the massive crowds partying at Lake of the Ozarks oblivious to spreading coronavirus to the rest of us.

Meanwhile, another pandemic was happening that many of us felt immune to—and that is the plague of racism in our country.

As horrifying as it is to watch the video of four white police officers dehumanize a 46-year-old black man and slowly torture him for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, in broad daylight, in the streets in Minneapolis, it is also necessary for us to not turn away. For many white people, we finally see the reality of an ongoing and widespread pattern of bias and violence that people of color have known their whole lives. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men, a fact that moms raising black boys teach their sons at an early age.

Floyd’s death came 10 weeks after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, who was chased down by a white father and son in a pickup truck as he jogged in his neighborhood in Glynn County, Georgia. It came six weeks after white officers killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black Louisville emergency room technician, who was asleep when the cops raided her home.

Adding fuel to the fire was the viral rant of Amy Cooper, a white woman who threatened to call the cops on Christian Cooper (no relation), an African American man who asked her to leash her dog while he was bird watching in Central Park. And those are just a few recent outrageous acts of racism caught on camera– countless other crimes we will never know about.

Historians believe these and recent senseless deaths and threats haved ripped the scab from 400 years of oppression of black people. And the pandemic has festered this wound. The latest data shows that African Americans have died from Covid-19 at almost three times the rate of white people.

Across the country, black people have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 20.7 for whites, 22.9 for Latinos and 22.7 for Asian Americans.

While genetics and predisposed health conditions contribute to casualties among this population, so does racial discrimination, as evident by the health care workers across the country who are supporting #WhiteCoatForBlackLives to recognizes racism as a public health issue.

From the pandemic to the protests, the collective consciousness of white people has been elevated, and perhaps therein lies a silver lining. We need to take advantage of the moment. We are the wealthiest country on earth and yet we were completely unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans with a disproportionate number of black Americans, and we have working families who can’t afford health care. Right here, right now, we have an opportunity to move this country in a different way, by making new policies that serve more people equally.

But only if we build on our awareness, listen to each other, and understand the systemic root of the problem that is very deep and complex. Generations of black Americans are weary, angry, fearful, and frustrated. Let’s listen to their stories and experiences and learn from them. They have carried the painful burden of inequality for too long. Black and brown-skinned Americans deserve equal access to quality education, health care, safe neighborhoods, job opportunity, and respect for their rich cultural heritage.

As Jews, we make up roughly two percent of the U.S. population, we are small but mighty. We also understand the potential danger of silence when it comes to suppression of a marginalized community.

In the words of Martin Niemoller, (January 1892 – 6 March 1984), a German theologian and Lutheran pastor best known for his opposition to the Nazi regime:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The Jewish community is always on edge and vulnerable to antisemitism, so we mobilize and respond to those whose basic human rights are denied.  We have showed up for the Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement, #MeToo, and now Black Lives Matter. Our black and brown brothers and sisters, feel like strangers in a strange land. In God’s eyes, we all have the right to live in freedom and without fear, so let’s get to work on Tikkun Olam, “repairing this world,” it’s our holy obligation.

These social injustice problems can’t be fixed overnight and we can’t rely on the  government, which in many ways got us here in the first place. But we can turn our hopes and prayers into action. And we can start with ourselves, in our homes, with our families.

This is what we can do now: Participate in a protest (wear a mask and practice social distancing); help paint a mural on a boarded up business; donate water, food and supplies to those effected by the upheaval in their communities; support and patronize black-owned businesses which can also be found on #314Together,a local organization that is taking extra steps to help local and small businesses who are impacted by the coronavirus outbreak; VOTE! Learn about where the candidates stand on social justice and issues important to you and be an informed voter in the upcoming election; sign a petition; go to a peaceful rally with your kids; talk about the history of racism with your families;  expand our social circles, follow influential dynamic Jews of color in social media; donate what you can to organizations that work tirelessly for criminal justice reform, such as the ACLU or NAACP and others listed below. We can all do something.

Here are FIVE ways to stand in solidarity with the African American community.

EDUCATE. DONATE. ACTIVATE. ILLUMINATE. LOVE NOT HATE.

EDUCATE.

Learning to be anti-racist starts at home. We can educate ourselves and our kids by getting out of our bubble and our comfort zone. Reading books that feature characters who have different stories and skin color is a great way to teach young people about diversity in the world.  To get started, check out this anti-racist Jewish reading list for children of all ages.

Books are a powerful tool. We Stories (westories.org) is a nonprofit St. Louis organization that uses children’s literature to help families talk about race and racism and act as a positive force for change in our local community.  We Stories serves parents, and their children from birth to age 8+, who are not yet having deliberate, robust conversations about racism, but would like to.

And in case you missed the CNN/Sesame Street Town Hall for Kids and Families” or you want to watch the 60-minute “Standing Up To Racism” show again, go HERE!

Also, visit your local bookstores and libraries for these recommended titles.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States by Walter Johnson

How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi

The Color of Law by Richard Rubinstein

If audio books are your thing, go HERE! 

Besides books, many people are turning to movies, television, music and more to shed light on how civil unrest and systemic injustices have been a part of America since its very birth as a nation.

Go HERE for a list of movies to stream at home, including  Just Mercy, American Son, When They See Us, The Hate U Give, The Help, Hidden Figures, Loving, Crown Heights, and 13th.

ILLUMINATE.

In Pirkei Avot/Ethics of Our Fathers, we learn the world stands on these three things: Justice, Truth and Peace. This sums up Black Lives Matter, the civil rights movement of our time.
Justice has guided the Jewish community throughout our history, and it is our obligation to help repair the world  through tzedakah, coming from the root Tzedek, meaning “righteousness or justice.”

The Torah tells us to lift up people when they feel pain, anguish or loss. It is no coincidence that we read in this past week’s Torah portion, Parashat Nasso, what it means to “lift up.”

Torah uses “lift” to count someone because when someone really “counts” they are lifted up, they are no longer an outsider, excluded from the circle. We are the United States of America, not the Divided States of America. The social injustice problems in our country will not be solved right way, but we can change how we think and feel within ourselves right now. Great change begins inside of every person and moves outward. We can use this time to lift ourselves, and then lift one another, and walk through the wilderness together. Because our Torah teaches we are stronger when we walk together.

In Parsha Nasso, we are given the Priestly Blessing. God tells Moses to have Aaron bless the sons of Israel by saying, “’May God bless you and keep you. May God illuminate the Almighty Countenance for you and favor you. May God lift up God’s Countenance toward you and establish peace for you.’ They shall place My Name upon the sons of Israel; and as for Me, I shall bless them.”

It is the job of all Jews to bring God’s blessing to others. We are the conduits, the channels, the means to share our blessings. Our African American brothers and sisters need to be lifted, safe, and loved.

Throughout the Torah, this message of taking in the stranger is reverberated. In Exodus 23:9, we read, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In Leviticus 19:33 we find, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.

In Leviticus 19:34,we repeat this refrain, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”

In Leviticus 19:16, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.”

Our Torah instructs us to hold ourselves accountable, seek justice, and act.

ACTIVATE.

Cast your ballot, let your voice be heard, and vote. Your vote makes a difference.

Voters in Ferguson, Mo., made history on June 2 by electing Ella Jones as the city’s first black mayor. She is also the first woman to serve as mayor of the St. Louis suburb.

The election took place as protesters filled the streets of many U.S. cities, rallying against systemic racism and police brutality faced by many black communities.

Six years ago, before the nation was gripped by the death of George Floyd, it was Ferguson that served as the epicenter for protests against law enforcement.

The protests in Ferguson, and days of clashes between police and demonstrators, were sparked by the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The young black man was killed by a white police officer.

The only way to change the systems is when use our voices to vote for policies that represent our values and work for the betterment and equity of those underrepresented in society.

To become involved in the upcoming Every Voice, Every Vote campaign at Congregation Shaare Emeth, email Stacy Jespersen at sjespersen@sestl.org and let us know of your interest.

For a nonpartisan guide to the candidates in your state, go to VOTE411, a website committed to ensuring voters have the information they need to successfully participate in the upcoming election. Whether its local, state or federal, every election is important to ensure our las and polices reflect the values and believes of our communities.

The young people are our leaders of tomorrow, and they’ve already proven they are prepared to make this world a better place by showing up at the polls. Rock the Vote is a trusted and effective nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to building the political power of young people.

DONATE.

There are many community organizations working to bring about racial justice and equity. Donating money and/or volunteering to help move their cause forward is not charity. It is a duty. Give what you can, do what you can. The strength of a human being is measured in who we can lift up, not beat down. We build muscles when we help someone. We have the power make a difference—and that is super human strength!

The issues people are voicing are deep-rooted and require meaningful change. To help drive that change, here are some organizations that are dedicated to addressing both urgent needs and systemic problems, locally and nationally.

In St. Louis:

Action St. Louis Their campaigns (Close the Workhouse, #WeCount314) work for justice for black St. Louisans.

Arch City Defenders – They combat the criminalization of poverty and state violence, especially in communities of color.

Faith and For the Sake of All – They educate faith communities about disparities in health and other life outcomes between African American and white St. Louisans and engages them in action steps to address those disparities.

Lift for Life Academy (LFA)- Has been educating, empowering, and uplifting  inner city youth since it was founded in 2000 as the first independent charter middle school to open in the City of St. Louis. Today, LFT serves nearly 600 students, kindergarten through high school. Their motto: “As long as poverty, injustice and inequality persist, none of us can truly rest.

Operation Food Search— distributes more than $35 million worth of food and necessities to 330 community partners in 31 Missouri and Illinois counties and in the city of St. Louis. This organization works beyond immediate hunger relief to address the root causes.

YWCA Metro St. Louis— YWCA is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all by providing services to our clients, with modifications to safeguard the health of our women, children, families and staff. This  bottoms-up, grassroots organization launched a revitalized brand that reaffirms the mission of working aggressively for women and people of color.

Bakers for Black Lives—St. Louis pastry chefs and bakers come together to host massive, outdoor bake sales to raise proceeds for a variety of organizations, including ArchCity Defenders. Campaign Zero, and STL Mutual Aid. For more info go to their Facebook page or contact bakersforblacklives@gmail.com if you want to volunteer or have questions.

And to connect with black owned businesses and events around the city, go HERE!

Nationwide:

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
  • ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
  • National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.
  • Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.
  • Justice & Equality Fund addresses both the urgent needs as well as broader, systemic issues. At launch, donations will support organizations focused on pretrial system reform, racial justice, and law enforcement reform.
  • Borealis Philanthropy Black-led Movement Fund works as a partner to philanthropy, helping grantmakers expand their reach and impact.
  • Advancement Project – They are a multi-racial civil rights organization supporting a number of local and national justice projects focused on racial equity.

LOVE NOT HATE.

Racism is not something we are born with, it is something we are taught. People who hurt others are usually hurting themselves. It’s ok to be sad and mad, it makes us human. Talk to your kids, start a conversation about how the black people were brought from Africa to the U.S. as workers, unpaid, slaves. It was not fair and something that’s been going on for centuries.

Children have a lot to deal with right now, from the pandemic to racism. Have honest, simple realistic conversations about how people are treated unfairly and hurt as a consequence of their skin color. Teach them by example how we have to stand up and do better and take action together.  By doing so, we can change our hearts, minds, and policies.

Stay safe, make your voices heard, and be the light we need in these dark times.

This blog is a work in progress, as am I. Please feel free to add your ideas, and together we can make a positive impact on promoting equality, peace, and justice in the Black Lives Matter movement.